The hero of this story is a mud crab and the villain is a man who supposedly has all his rational faculties intact.
In the market, the mud crab is the largest that is available for consumption. It is packed with sweet flesh and often sold alive in Chinese and Vietnamese shops with its claws tied tightly. Back home in Eluvaitivu, an islet off the Northern Peninsula in Sri Lanka, it was available in plenty. Crab curry is a favourite dish among Sri Lankans. After migrating to Australia I did not get the opportunity to taste this mud crab curry for a long time.
Sri Lankan fishermen normally go crazy when crabs get entangled in their nets. Primarily due to the damage caused by the crabs to the fishing nets. The fisherman, in a fit of rage, would break the legs and when the crabs reach the shore they would die painful, slow deaths.
Preparation of crab curry also involves the breaking of claws or boiling them alive in hot water. A common Sri Lankan saying states that human beings are like crabs: they swim joyfully in the cold water of the pot until the pot boils. No one notices the pain as the white flesh turn pink. Crab curries are usually prepared using abundant quantities of garlic and ginger, so as to avoid flatulence and to infuse the spicy flavour.
In Australia the usual practice is to keep the crabs’ claws tied tightly and exhibited in glass cases without inflicting any damage to their body parts. In the exhibition cases, crabs can be seen moving like a man in a straightjacket, hardly able to move around. Despite my predilection for crab curry I opted to avoid this dish for a few years.
One day when I visited the Springvale markets with my wife for regular shopping, old memories of eating crabs flooded back. I paused at the fish shop to admire the mud crabs. My wife looked at me as if I was a murderer. I knew that if I were to buy, the task of killing and preparing a crab curry would be my job. I did not want to pass the buck to my wife. I selected the biggest crab, placed it in a secure bag and handed a twenty-dollar note to the vendor. Before I could finish the transaction the crab was on the cashier’s table, attempting to escape.
Seeing the crab crawling his way out of the bag I was reminded of the asylum seekers coming in leaky boats. I laughed at his futile efforts.
‘The crab is fighting for its life which you appear to find a laughing matter,’ accused my wife.
My wife was on the side of the crab. Her words hit me with the force of a landmine explosion.
I work as a veterinary surgeon in clinics that care for only four legged animals and two legged birds. I was trained to have compassion only for those who need my care. My wife’s words made me realise that even a ten-legged crab deserves compassion. I did not want to continue my discussion. Any argument could go as far as the UNHRC in Geneva. Animal rights principles could be applied effectively to save the crab. My conscience pricked me and deep within me I felt the pain of torturing a live crab for my pleasure.
All the way back home I kept silent, disturbed by my conscience. I heard noises of the restless crab trying to escape yet again. The plastic bag that carried the crab was rustling and it disturbed my concentration. If I were to return the crab to the shop, without doubt someone else would buy it to satisfy their culinary craving. The debate within me was inconclusive. In a sheepish way I decided to end the debate by finally deciding to make a curry of it.
My next problem was how to end his life. I could not end the crab’s life by medical means, or decapitating it, or by kosher / halal means which may be the reason Old Testament prohibited the eating of crab. If I were to place the crab in the freezer, it would take a long time before the crab’s life came to an end. A person known to me told me that he would keep them in a freezing room for 72 hours before taking them to Singapore and yet the crabs managed to survive. If I opted to break the crab’s legs it would cause great pain and the crab would die slowly. I concluded that these methods were not suitable to put an end to a crab’s life in order to make a crab curry.
Finally I decided to immerse the crab in boiling water. The water boiled but still it took a long time as it was struggling to crawl out of the boiling pot. I left the pot pretending that there was only a dead crab in it.
At the same time I remembered the newspaper reports which highlighted the longest war in Asia – the Sri Lankan war between the Tamil Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka. Newspaper reports cited figures in tens of thousands killed in the 30-year-old war. Deaths of that magnitude agonised me. Here I was agonising over the death of one crab. I just couldn’t cope with tens of thousands. I felt like a murderer. I felt the pain of the crab dying in boiling water.
The pain was in the guilt. One has to kill the conscience to kill a living being. It is not easy to watch a crab boiling in hot water and dying. I consoled myself saying that it was not a human being. I told myself that the guilt was less because it was not a human being.
To kill this crab, I had to make an elaborate plan with the feeling of guilt. I was pondering how they could away with human lives so easily.
After the greenish crab had turned crimson it was not so difficult to face it. My agony was in watching the crab die. But the dead crab had taken my pain away. Ended too was the pain of the crab’s.
After the life of the crab was put to an end, I looked at my wife with a sense of triumph. At the beginning of this episode, she played the role of the lawyer for the crab whereas now she had become an economist not wanting to waste the crab that had cost twenty dollars.
I cooked the crab fast yet found it difficult to eat as I felt squeamish in my stomach, even nauseated to some extent. Worse still the images of the crab’s struggle were still fresh in my mind. I gulped down two shots of brandy to kill the butterflies in my stomach.
Crab curry was delicious. But that was the last time I cooked crabs in my house.